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Gathered here are thoughts on literature, technology, education, religion, culture and anything else that interests me. I hope you enjoy your stay.

Please note, comments are (currently) unmoderated.

On Being Let Down: iPhone 6 and the Politics of Disappointment

So here we are. It is, as Stephen Fry put it, ‘most exquisite mobile ever made.’ It is thinner, faster, bigger, more clever and lasts longer.

Except, if you keep it in your pocket it bends.

Except, in a year or so it’ll seem slow, heavy, stupid, with a weak heart.

Better to accept it: the thing that Tim WhatsHisName from Apple held aloft as the great saviour of your life, the thing that will lift you to untold heights, will be relegated, demoted. This is what the incrementally increasing digits do, they are a built-in code that both allows a temporary surge of current excitement at being ‘one up’, while ensuring that as soon as a newer (even thinner even faster…) model becomes available you’ll immediately know that you are suboptimal. At sixes and sevens when, be in no doubt, the 7 appears.

All of which is only by way of an example of a far wider problem, perhaps the greatest of our age: we are living in a time of wide and enduring disappointment. In every way imaginable, we are feeling let down.

As you may be aware, I am currently finishing off a book exploring something the history of the human quest for altitude. It’s called Getting High, and I’m quite sure it will be disappointing. But what I’ve seen in writing it is this repeated pattern of great hope and huge disappointment through the history of flight and ecstasy.

In order to provide focus, I’m using the lens of the late 1960s to shine light on the various ways that we have tried to ‘get high.’ Firstly I look at the LSD counterculture and the parallel religious moves that were being made over that period. These were about the inner journey of transcendence, of achieving great spiritual heights and ecstatic insights – all of which has a very ancient history both in religious practice and entheogenic drug use, with shamans, spirit guides, priests, gurus and pushers all making dramatic promises about what these things can deliver. In short: a return to Eden.

Secondly, I look at the journey that was being made at precisely the same time into outer space. The Apollo missions to the moon again are part of a long history of powered flight, or the dream of it. And what we find from the theorists and early pioneers right through to JFK and the key figures in space exploration are the same sky-high promises being made. Humankind will be saved. War will end. Eden will be regained.

By the end of the 60s we are already seeing some of the fallout, some of the disappointments that are beginning to take hold. What Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing screams in anger is simply this: the drugs didn’t work. And, he makes clear, neither did religion. What surprised me as I read around the history was how quickly people began to bore of the moon landings. There hadn’t been aliens, and they hadn’t discovered a new form of gold. It was just a dead rock. This is the sole reason that further missions were abandoned: the American public were disappointed.

Yet there was one more hope remaining. I go on in the book to show that, right at the end of the 60s, what people began to turn to after these twin disappointments was digital culture. Surely this would be the thing. Not a crude rocket or some inner journey, but a pure amalgam of the two… an electronic redemption, our failing, falling bodies finally augmented and made… divine? Because isn’t this what the smartphone offers? Omniscience, omnipresence, action at a distance…

It’s no coincidence that the original iPhone became known as ‘the Jesus phone.’ It was no less than salvation that people wanted from it.

And what we see now is, I believe, the opening of another sigh of great disappointment. Religion, drugs, space travel and digital culture: all of it has let us down. All of it left us disappointed.

It runs deep.

Capitalism promised great leisure and riches. We have been let down.

Politics promised great change. We have been let down.

Look at the fall-out from the Scottish referendum on independence. Look at the young men going to fight with IS. Look at political apathy and the overriding sense of cynicism. We are living in an age of almost universal disappointment.

In the 1580s Montaigne wrote that ‘to philosophise is to learn how to die.’ He could perhaps have written that it was to learn to deal with disappointment. Death, at its core, presents itself as the fundamental disappointment: after all that, is this it? Dust, rising for such a short while, only to return to dust?

The key question of our time is then this: how can we move beyond disappointment? In Montaigne’s terms, is there life after this death? Once we have faced up to the inevitability of our fall back into the earth, how do we then live? It’s to this question of resurrection – this ‘rising again’ – that Getting High turns as it concludes. The book is something of a memoir too in that this journey through religious, hedonistic, technological and political disappointment – and beyond – is a very personal one.

I don’t want to say too much more here – I’ll save your disappointment for when you read the final version – but suffice to say I believe that there is hope. But before that hope there what I believe we must do is get beyond denial. To accept not just that the iPhone 6 is disappointing, but that every other one will be too, and that all of these devices, all of our contrivances, all of our gadgets, all of our grand schemes and plans, all of it is going to let us down, just as certainly as we will be let down on straps into a hole in the ground some day, just as certainly as we will watch others being let down too.

The Apple is rotten; the promise of omniscience and immortality has turned out to be false. So then, how shall we live?

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Dear Scotland…

I’ve kept pretty quiet with all this talk of independence, partly because I’ve somehow felt that I didn’t have a valid voice in the debate. But the last couple of days, as the arguments have become more intense and the feelings raised even higher, I’ve decided that that’s nonsense.

I could say that I have a voice because – though I’ve never lived a day in Scotland – my grandmother was a full Stewart, her line going directly back to James VI / I, and that leaves me with at least a quarter of myself Scottish. But that would be ridiculous. I have a voice because I’m from the UK, and because this is about us, all of us.

I have a voice, but no, I don’t have big answers – just some real concerns about this whole process. So in the interests of participatory democracy, here goes.

1. Westminster needs major reform.

Thank you. If it wasn’t clear that there’s a major democratic deficit and dysfunction in this country, it is now. And we have this referendum to thank for making that abundantly clear. Yes, we need serious reform of our politics. If Westminster feels a long way from Aberdeen and Oban, I can tell you it feels a pretty long damned way from Crystal Palace too. We need more power devolved to regions. London is a messed up black hole… but it’s not just Scotland that it’s eating, and in that sense I’d love you to stay, to be the balancing force that this Union needs to be healthy.

Please, help us all correct it, rather than cut yourself off to escape it.

2. How small do you want to go?

My great grandfather was Alexander Stewart, a fierce member of the Scottish Free Church. He was something of a popular preacher at the time, ‘the golden voice of Scotland’ they used to call him. The city of Edinburgh held a two minute silence when he died. One of his ancestors was central to ‘the disruption‘ (you wondered where I got it from, right?) of 1843 where the ‘Wee Frees’ broke away from the established Church of Scotland.

Isms and schisms. History is full of them, and in every case you look at there will be some valid point of difference, some core point of grievance which can’t be refuted. So yes, I don’t have any doubt that there are good arguments for an independent Scotland. There are valid grievances. But the thing is, there always will be. Look at the church – look at the history of your Scottish church. It’s riven with righteous schism.

My point is this: how small do you want to go? What happens if, post independence, the Shetlands or Orkneys go on to make a case for independence, fed up at the distance they feel from Edinburgh? What happens if Iona decides it would be better able to support itself alone, better able to manage its finances more equitably, more able to give people a democratic voice?

Independence is a good thing, but the decision needs to be made about how far down we go before it gets destructive. At what point are we ‘better together’? I don’t have a final answer to that, but my hunch is this: with your input we can be a better union. Given what I’ve said about the desperate need to reform our politics, I think we can find a way forward where we can have strength in unity, and then greater strength in diversity of voices within that unity.

If every time there is a difference there is a schism, we are doomed. Doomed to become a beach of tiny, discrete grains, blown about by every wind, shifted by every tide. There will always be a case for greater separation, and one of the things that worries me is that the Puritan drive, the desire to break away in order to achieve some kind of purity, is part of the deep psychology of Scotland – as I know very well from myself and my family’s history.

The temptation is to think that the only way we can secure our true identity is by creating a separatist space which validates that. But identity formation is far more complex than this. If you are Scottish, you are Scottish and independence or otherwise will not make you less or more so. What is clear is that there is a major crisis in identity across our nation – and beyond. Is the answer to that increasing independence for smaller and smaller regions? May be, but I’m not convinced. I think the problem is deeper, going right down into the erosion of community and sense of self by globalisation.

Schism is easy. It feels pure. The harder, more difficult job is strengthening ties that allow those different identities to flourish, while remaining strong and loyal.

3. We’re an Island

Which is to say, we are a contiguous unit. Not a massive one like the Americas, but a manageable one. Is it really sensible to be doubling up on administrative costs, having two central banks etc. when we are really not that large an island?

4. Political Engagement is Intoxicating

Everything I’ve heard from the campaign has been about how amazing it has been to be part of something. Fighting for a cause. Being involved. Getting out and debating. Engaging with people. And all of this is true regardless of which side people are on.

Political engagement is intoxicating. And perhaps that’s the greatest lesson from all of this. Regardless of the result – it’s good to be active, not passive. It’s good to be passionate, to get stuck in, to believe in something and work for it. But that doesn’t require an independent Scotland. We can be democratically active and energised if we stay as a Union. What we need is a dramatic reinvigoration of our politics – root and branch. Thank you for giving us that, for being the spark for that. But please, after this result, what happens then? Apathy and disengagement are rife in the UK, and the reasons for this run deep.

I’d love you to stay, to stay and share that intoxication with us, to help us all to improve this Union. We’re not a huge country. We are a diverse gathering of peoples, one that I think would be lessened by division. If we can take this energy, this desire for people to have a new voice, I think we can give Westminster the kick up the backside it needs and demand a more just, more equal politics for all of us: Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish.

That buried fraction of me that is Scottish is so mixed with those other parts of me that are English and otherwise. Please, I don’t want them amputated. Schism always feels more pure to begin with. But what will be cut next?

All the best for the next few days of thought on this… And here’s to Friday morning.

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Hacking Just Got Physical: Real-World Security in a Digitally Dissolved World

I’ve not written much here for a while… hopefully people have caught up with pieces I’ve published elsewhere, and know that I’m basically head down at the moment finishing off a new book, Getting High. I’m really excited about it. You can hear me talking about it when I was over in LA in the summer.

Anyway, this article piqued my interest the other day – a piece in Tech Crunch about a 3D-printed ‘bump key’ that can open some pretty complex locks. Your front door lock look like this? Then you need to pay attention:

 

 

 
Let’s be clear: this isn’t (yet) printing a bespoke key to fit your lock. But what this demonstrates is that a physical security system we have relied on for hundreds of years is soon to become obsolete. In other words, you’re not just going to need to ramp up your digital passwords, you’re going to need to upgrade your locks.

I think this is interesting because this is about the bleeding of the digital world into the physical. Anyone can go online, find the template for one of these bump keys, print one out and start opening a huge number of locks. Hacking just got real; it just hit the physical world.

What this means is that we are approaching a situation where anything can be copied. There are 3D printers coming to market that can print biological structures, that can print metals and mixed materials. Currently, if you listen to an album you might have bought it or downloaded, legally or illegally. But what if you go to a gig and you’re no longer sure if the person performing actually is Prince? What if they are a hologram, or a sophisticated automaton, or a clone?

This bleed from the digital into the physical is just beginning – but it’s going to throw up huge numbers of questions about things we have taken for granted. The ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ worlds are dissolving into one another. If a work of art can be copied molecule for molecule, what will the word ‘original’ mean any more? If a key is no longer secure, what will the word ‘security’ mean any more?

I’m not sure I can answer that yet. But I’m going to be watching what locksmiths say about all this. The answer, clearly, cannot be smart-cards for house entry… they are even more open to cracking. Interesting times ahead.

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Books, Virtual Reality, Imagination and the Inner Eye

The bookshop Waterstones tweeted a joke yesterday in which Mark Zuckerberg went into their shop on Oxford Street:

‘What’s this?’ he said, holding up a book. ‘It’s a book,’ I replied.

He looked at it for five minutes before asking what it does. ‘Well,’ I said. ‘You look at it and it kind of shows you another reality.’

His eyes widened, his voice trembled with excitement. ‘Like virtual reality?’ ‘Well, sort of..’ I said. ‘EIGHT BILLION POUNDS!’ he screamed.

He threw a £10 note at the till and ran out of the store laughing nervously, like someone who’s been tickled for just a bit too long.

The joke, if your head has been in a bucket the last few days, centres on Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR – a virtual reality start-up that, even though it has yet to release a single product, found itself bought for billions of dollars. (The picture above is of one of the employees examining their bank account.)

Nobody quite knows what Facebook plan on doing with Oculus, or whether we’ll soon be able to walk through our Facebook timelines like they were real roads, traversing food photos and hopping over emotionally charged videos that promise that WHAT HAPPENED NEXT WILL AMAZE YOU. What is certain is that there is a huge war for our eyes going on. With Google’s Glass, Sony’s Project Morpheus – among others – we are in the beginning stages of a war where our field of vision is the battlefield itself.

This was in my mind yesterday as I was reading What the Dormouse Said – John Markoff’s history of 60s counterculture and its impact on the birth of Silicon Valley – for research for a new book I’m writing.

In it, Markoff describes some of the very earliest computer games which, let alone virtual reality 3D immersive environments, hardly had any pictures at all and were based almost entirely on text. This is a screenshot from the hugely popular Hunt the Wumpus:

As Markoff relates, InfoCom, one of the most successful distributors of these text-based computer games had a strapline for their ads in the 1980s:

The Best Graphics Are In Your Head

Reading this it struck me that the coming world of virtual reality and the ocular land-grab we are heading into present some dangers. There are perhaps risks to our optic health staring into mini screens for hours, or even a chance that we’ll become a more obese race. There are deeper issues still: currently there are so many worries about how distracted by our phones we are – and here we are moving towards a technology that actively blocks out any other sights and makes us undistractable from our screens, signifying a final victory of the virtual over reality.

But what made me more concerned as I thought about these moves towards immersive environments is what they might do to our imaginations.

In the text-based game above the descriptions of the environment are basic. They leave a lot of work for the mind to do. We have to fill in the swathes of black space with our own constantly-refreshing mental pictures as beasts approach and fights ensue. This work of imagination turns out to be important because it is one of the core ways that we develop empathy.

In a short text-based game like this we don’t get very far, but in reading a highly involved novel we are engaging with a tiny and brilliant machine for producing huge amounts of empathetic feeling. This isn’t just literary flim-flam – this is scientifically proven. As the study concludes:

‘Reading fiction improves understanding of others, and this has a very basic importance in society, not just in the general way making the world a better place by improving interpersonal understanding, but in specific areas such as politics, business, and education.’

But aren’t video games sorts of stories too? Like films are? Yes, but they don’t function in the same way. As Heather Chaplin, a writer on gaming culture, put it in an interview for The Believer:

‘Video games are good at fostering problem solving, but they’re not so good at fostering human empathy or a deeper understanding of the human condition. Novels are about psychological empathy; games simply are not. And if games are telepathing something about the future, maybe that tells us something about the future, maybe that tells us that psychological empathy, concern with the human condition is not going to be that important in the twenty-first century.’

Why is this? My hunch is that the answer goes to the heart of this battle over our eyesight.

With a novel, our minds are still required to do a great deal of visual work. There are cues on the page, but they are incomplete. While we read with our external eyes, it is our inner eye that does this work of inner-vision. In other words, novels require a huge amount of imagination, or inner image creation. And this applies across the senses. Using our eyes we pick up textual clues about smells, sounds, sights, heat, taste and, most importantly, complex inner feelings.

In a video game the whole point is that the visual work is being done, and in an immersive VR environment full information is being provided to our external senses – meaning that the inner eye, the inner work of imagination, is dispensed with. When this happens, the studies are telling us, empathy suffers.

Facebook have not spent billions on a company that makes video goggles because they think it’ll be a laugh to try them. They have spent the money because they believe that they will get the money back. The battle for our undistracted eyesight is a battle to keep our eyes on ads, on the monetization of our field of vision.

What then should we do? Quite simply, as the battle for our eyeline begins, we need to commit to reading. Reading more and wider and deeper and longer. Make no mistake: this battle will be hard fought and it will be hard to resist. But, if we are to see kindness and generosity and just human interaction flourish, we need to keep resisting and keep reading.

In the ancient world, and in some cultures still, there was a priestly caste of those called seers. In a world where all could see, here were people who could really see. These see-rs were elevated not for the powers of their external sight, but for their insights, for the wisdom of their inner-eye.

Those of us who continue to read may well be designated as ancient and old fashioned. But, make no mistake, in an Oculist world, it is the seers, the readers, those who continue to exercise their inner lives, who will be most needed.

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PonoPlayer, Chilli Kebabs, and the End of HiFi in an Instagram World

Over the past week or so there’s been quite a bit of coverage given to Neil Young’s announcement at SXSW of a Kickstarter to raise money for the ‘PonoPlayer’ – a super-hi-fidelity music player that hopes to rival the iPod, and blow people away with the quality of music reproduction. Aside from my opinion that [...]

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The Tyranny of Numbers | Obsessive Measurement | Demetrification

The novel manuscript I’ve been working on is based in a school (not the one I currently work in) and I’m planning to be posting some tangential thoughts on education and teaching over the coming months. One of the key issues I’ve been reflecting on is the problem of measurement. In a busy, economy-driven society, [...]

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A Core Suite of Tools – Is Tech Plateauing?

A piece in today’s Independent got me thinking today about the core suite of tools that we might deem are irreducible. The article argues that Apple needs to do again what it did with the iPod, iPhone etc. and create a device that fills a desire we didn’t know we had. I need to think [...]

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To The Book – Reflections on Reading Tomes

Was talking books last night in a bar overlooking the Thames, and was reminded to come back to something I’d noted having finished Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. It’s such a large volume, but there was a lovely sense in reading the hardback of the gradual shift of weight, page by page, from the right hand [...]

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New Poem: Kindling

Thoughts after storms.  

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The Gift of Sleep | Resisting 24/7

Happy New Year people. Been on school holidays for the past couple of weeks, which has mostly meant getting my head down writing (finishing novel / working on a follow-up to Mutiny-After Magic – more news of which soon). I’ve also been reading a fascinating book – 24/7 by Jonathan Crary. It explores how 24/7 [...]

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